I still remember the first time I went to New York by myself. I couldn’t point to the date on the calendar, but I remember jumping on Metro North in New Haven on a day so humid you could chew the air, and waiting while the train rattled its way through Connecticut, past dizzyingly tall and identical hive-like buildings in Harlem, then down underground until I emerged in the steamy underbelly of Grand Central. I recall exiting the station and walking up 42nd street. Everyone seemed to have some place to be except me. Then that feeling sunk in that I always get when I’m in New York – that no one particularly cares that you’re there. You’re certainly welcome to be present, but don’t expect anyone to pay attention. There are bigger things than you on the agenda. This may be true of all cities, but New York has a way of pointing it out to you before the train doors even slam behind you. I turned on my heel and headed toward Times Square, perhaps for the same reason that if you dropped me in Paris I’d probably head for the Eiffel Tower or in London I’d head for Big Ben – seemed like a good enough place to start.
I doubt I ever made it there, I was probably sidetracked by shops or maybe the scent of food. New York seems to have both the best and the worst food in the world (I’m leaving out airplane food here, obviously – which is not so much food but rationed provisions in a legalized hostage situation). I didn’t have much luck in locating the “best” variety at first – this was in the days before smartphones and Yelp, so it was a game of street menu roulette, placing bets with my saved college wages. I’d also wager that most of the suited professionals rushing past me on the streets tipped more for their lunches than I ever paid for mine.
New York restaurants seem to come and go; there aren’t many I’ve successfully managed to eat in twice. I had dinner in a hip Thai place once, and a couple years later called a friend hoping I could find it again. “You know,” I yelled into the phone while taxis swooshed past me in streaks of yellow and blurred Broadway ads, “The one where everything looked like it was made from shiny white plastic with changing colored lights on the ceiling, and for some reason they served cheesecake for dessert.” Such a description in most cities would surely narrow the field, but not so here. My friend recalled the dinner but could not name the place. It’s like the city is some giant Harry Potterian Room of Requirement, where a restaurant steps forward when you need it but is never quite found again. The first time I went to New York (to visit Columbia University), my dad told me about a Chinese place that had ducks hanging in the window – that evening’s main course, presumably. I’ve looked but have never found the place. I know it’s probably long gone, but I still keep an eye out. Maybe someday I’ll stumble across it while searching for the nearest subway stop.